Static Analysis: Analyzing the Options

April 5, 2015 by · Comments Off on Static Analysis: Analyzing the Options
Filed under: Development, Security, Testing 

When it comes to automated testing for applications there are two main types: Dynamic and Static.

  • Dynamic scanning is where the scanner is analyzing the application in a running state. This method doesn’t have access to the source code or the binary itself, but is able to see how things function during runtime.
  • Static analysis is where the scanner is looking at the source code or the binary output of the application. While this type of analysis doesn’t see the code as it is running, it has the ability to trace how data flows the the application down to the function level.

An important component to any secure development workflow, dynamic scanning analyzes a system as it is running. Before the application is running the focus is shifted to the source code which is where static analysis fits in. At this state it is possible to identify many common vulnerabilities while integrating into your build processes.

If you are thinking about adding static analysis to your process there are a few things to think about. Keep in mind there is not just one factor that should be the decision maker. Budget, in-house experience, application type and other factors will combine to make the right decision.

Disclaimer: I don’t endorse any products I talk about here. I do have direct experience with the ones I mention and that is why they are mentioned. I prefer not to speak to those products I have never used.

Budget

I hate to list this first, but honestly it is a pretty big factor in your implementation of static analysis. The vast options that exist for static analysis range from FREE to VERY EXPENSIVE. It is good to have an idea of what type of budget you have at hand to better understand what option may be right.

Free Tools

There are a few free tools out there that may work for your situation. Most of these tools depend on the programming language you use, unlike many of the commercial tools that support many of the common languages. For .Net developers, CAT.Net is the first static analysis tool that comes to mind. The downside is that it has not been updated in a long time. While it may still help a little, it will not compare to many of the commercial tools that are available.

In the Ruby world, I have used Brakeman which worked fairly well. You may find you have to do a little fiddling to get it up and running properly, but if you are a Ruby developer then this may be a simple task.

Managed Services or In-House

Can you manage a scanner in-house or is this something better delegated to a third party that specializes in the technology?

This can be a difficult question because it may involve many facets of your development environment. Choosing to host the solution in-house, like HP’s Fortify SCA may require a lot more internal knowledge than a managed solution. Do you have the resources available that know the product or that can learn it? Given the right resources, in-house tools can be very beneficial. One of the biggest roadblocks to in-house solutions is related to the cost. Most of them are very expensive. Here are a few in-house benefits:

  • Ability to integrate directly into your Continuous Integration (CI) operations
  • Ability to customize the technology for your environment/workflow
  • Ability to create extensions to tune the results

Choosing to go with a managed solution works well for many companies. Whether it is because the development team is small, resources aren’t available or budget, using a 3rd party may be the right solution. There is always the question as to whether or not you are ok with sending your code to a 3rd party or not, but many are ok with this to get the solution they need. Many of the managed services have the additional benefit of reducing false positives in the results. This can be one of the most time consuming pieces of a static analysis tool, right there with getting it set up and configured properly. Some scans may return upwards of 10’s of thousands of results. Weeding through all of those can be very time consuming and have a negative effect on the poor person stuck doing it. Having a company manage that portion can be very beneficial and cost effective.

Conclusion

Picking the right static analysis solution is important, but can be difficult. Take the time to determine what your end goal is when implementing static analysis. Are you looking for something that is good, but not customizable to your environment, or something that is highly extensible and integrated closely with your workflow? Unfortunately, sometimes our budget may limit what we can do, but we have to start someplace. Take the time to talk to other people that have used the solutions you are looking at. Has their experience been good? What did/do they like? What don’t they like? Remember that static analysis is not the complete solution, but rather a component of a solution. Dropping this into your workflow won’t make you secure, but it will help decrease the attack surface area if implemented properly.

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